Courage and conviction: Women in journalism honored
International Women's Media Foundation recognizes Jill Carroll and others for their bravery.
NEW YORK — For May Chidiac, host of Lebanon's popular "Good Day" TV program, it was a regular Sunday in September. She had just finished a show on Syria's possible involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and had left the studio feeling satisfied and secure. When she got into her car, a half-kilogram of explosives blew up under her front seat.
She survived, but the blast took her left hand and leg.
"I didn't know at any moment that I was really threatened, even though I'd received some letters saying I would pay with my blood and things like that," she says of last year's explosion. "They usually don't attack women in Lebanon and especially [not] journalists, so I'm kind of a pioneer in that," she adds wryly.
Ms. Chidiac's story serves as a reminder that in much of the world women are still struggling to establish a foothold in the newsroom, just as they did in the United States in the 1960s and '70s. And as they fight for professional standing, women are just as likely as their male colleagues to be targets of repressive political, social, or business interests that are threatened by the truth.
This week, Chidiac is in New York being honored for her courage, integrity, and sacrifice by the International Women's Media Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to strengthening the role of female journalists around the world. Two other reporters – Gao Yu, a freelancer in China, and Jill Carroll of The Christian Science Monitor – are also being feted for putting their profession and the search for truth before their own safety. Elena Poniatowska Amor of Mexico is receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award for her pioneering spirit in paving the way for future generations of female reporters.
These awards, given since 1990, are the only ones in the world devoted specifically to shedding light on the bravery of women in journalism. The recent murder of Anna Politkovskaya, one of Russia's top investigative reporters, adds deeper meaning to this year's ceremony.
"That one just hit everyone in the gut," says Ann Cooper, the director of broadcast at the Journalism School at Columbia University in New York, noting the important role that journalists play in a nation's political life. "If [journalists] are not free to write openly about any subject, and to write critically when they've found wrongdoing ..., it's probably a sign the rest of society is restricted as well."
Exactly 10 months to the day after the attack, Chidiac was back on the air. But she now had a new show: "With Audacity."
Instead of dulling her determination, the bombing fired it up. She continues to investigate not only the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri, but also the attacks against her and other journalists. And despite the fact that she is still in rehabilitation, she is also teaching young reporters at Notre Dame University in Lebanon and finishing up a doctorate.
"When you want your country to be free and sovereign, you have to keep attached to your beliefs and to keep on working, despite the sacrifices," she says.
Part of her passion was inspired by growing up in a country that was occupied first by Israel and then by Syria. She says she always knew that she wanted to do something that would bring her attention and help her country. She never realized the sacrifice that would require. Noting that two of her male colleagues were killed last year, she now accepts risk as a given.
"It's too late for me to stay away from the danger," she says. "I believe I have a message and I have a mission to accomplish. If I stay away now, all of my sacrifices would have been for nothing. So I'll continue with the last drop of my blood working for my country to be the way I want it to be – free and sovereign."
Growing up in a university town in China, Gao Yu's parents taught her about the golden age of press freedom in China during the first half of the 20th century. It was led by a pioneering publisher and reporter named Liang Chai Hsi, who was determined that the voice of the people be heard. Gao dreamed of carrying on that tradition. But just as she entered college in 1962, all media courses were canceled because of a nationwide famine. Her graduation was delayed by the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). She was banished to the countryside. A decade went by before she could realize her dream, after the government in Beijing finally reopened many of the news organizations it had closed.
She began writing political and economic stories, and was at the forefront of the reform movement, fighting censorship and championing human rights and democracy. As a result, she's been jailed twice, once for six years for "leaking state secrets" – ironically to a pro-Chinese government newspaper in Hong Kong.
"The Communist Party requires that history be forgotten and reality be whitewashed," she said through a translator. "But after the Tiananmen massacre [in 1989], there are more and more excellent journalists who are determined to tell the truth and go against the government. I draw strength from all of those young people as well as those who came before me."
As a young woman in Mexico in the early 1950s, Ms. Poniatowska's father noted her ability to type, take shorthand, and speak three languages. He suggested she'd be a good secretary. So she got a job, didn't like it, and quit.
Soon after, at a cocktail party for the US ambassador, her mother introduced her as a journalist. That was a surprise to Poniatowska. But the ambassador was charmed and invited her to interview him. Since it was his first chat with any member of the Mexican press, a major newspaper published her piece.
"I became a journalist like a donkey – I knew nothing about it," she says. "I learned from one day to the next."
Journalism suited her curiosity, and a somewhat curious nature. Though men got the plum assignments in the machismo culture, she liked to laugh. That made her stand out. Mexican journalists had a "pompous writing style" that took politicians way too seriously, she says. She decided instead to write what she saw.
"I saw the president nearly fall down as he entered Congress, and if a bodyguard hadn't caught him, he'd have been flat on his nose on the red carpet," she says. "I wrote about that and all of the crazy things I saw. People started laughing, and that changed the way Mexicans saw politics." It also helped revolutionize Mexican journalism.
Jill Carroll, the Monitor reporter who spent 82 days as a hostage in Baghdad, always knew she wanted to be a foreign correspondent. After college she worked for a short while as a reporting assistant at The Wall Street Journal. Ms. Carroll then went to the Middle East on her own, learned Arabic and went to Iraq and worked as a freelancer. She was on assignment for the Monitor when she was abducted Jan. 7. Her interpreter, Alan Enwiya, was killed in the attack. Her driver, Adnan Abbas, who witnessed the abduction, has had his life threatened. He and his family now live as refugees outside Iraq. Carroll is donating the money from the award to a fund to help his family.
She is currently on leave and a fellow at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy. Carroll's full story can be found at: www.csmonitor.com/specials/carroll/index.html.